Education: Challenges in Contexts of Conflict

8 July 2021

This month, HART is focusing on the challenges facing education in our partner countries and how our partners seek to address them.

Terrorist attacks against educational targets have increased in recent years. Terrorist groups across South Asia and Africa, including Boko Haram in Nigeria, the Afghan Taliban, and Al-Qaeda linked groups in Syria and Iraq, have either increasingly used attacks on educational institutions as an instrument of terror, or have taken over educational institutions to promote their ‘brand’ of extremism.[i]  In recent years, the increasing number of attacks against schools and the kidnapping of pupils by extremist militant groups in Nigeria have been well publicised.


Why are Educational Institutions Targets?

Schools, colleges and universities are comparatively ‘soft’ targets where large numbers of people gather. Military, government and civil buildings are increasingly well-guarded. By contrast, educational institutions are less protected, more vulnerable and have symbolic value since they are often perceived to ‘represent’ the state. Attacks on schools have high ‘terror’ value and increase the profile of militant groups.

But there are also ideological reasons. Boko Haram in Nigeria and Al-Qa’eda-linked groups in Syria and elsewhere believe that western-style secular education corrupts Islamic society and is contrary to their view of faith. In fact, the words ‘Boko Haram’ can roughly be translated  as “Western education is forbidden”.


Why do Islamic Extremists Loathe Western Education?

Many Islamists consider western education, often introduced by Christian missionaries, to be a western colonialist religious ‘import’ that corrupts Islamic faith and ‘traditional’ values and they seek a return to ‘pure’ religious education.

However, having been applied and adapted to all cultures, modern education can no longer be considered a ‘western’ import. It is nevertheless considered the greatest threat to the exclusivist ideology of militant groups. Prof Boaz, Dean at Lauder School of Government, Diplomacy and Strategy writes: “Terrorists fully understand that education for peace, human rights, minority and women rights as much as democratic and liberal values are contradictory to their messages and pose the biggest threat to their ongoing radicalization efforts. If they can shut down rival education, they will achieve a monopoly on the minds of the future.”

It is necessary though to distinguish between religious and politically motivated violence. Much extremism is rooted in perceptions of injustice and marginalisation.[ii] Situations of poverty and injustice become the seedbed in which sectarian and religious tensions can be manipulated and grow. The Global Terrorism Index report of 2013 ( p.68) identifies two factors closely identified with terrorist activity: political violence committed by the state and the existence of broader armed conflicts. “The link between these two factors and terrorism is so strong that less than 0.6 percent of all terrorist attacks have occurred in countries without any ongoing conflict and any form of political terror.”[iii]  Lack of employment for educated persons in politically insecure countries heighten the risk of radicalisation of well-educated persons.


What Solutions?

Tackling violent extremism requires addressing education and employment needs, and this is why it is such an important focus for most of our partners. Addressing high drop-out rates may be the first step in reducing recruitment of young people into violent extremism. Likewise, lack of access to formal education renders children susceptible to recruitment and radicalization. Educational provision and incentives in poor communities, where safe schools and infrastructures are available for children (both male and female) and staff, in which critical thinking, sports, life skills and family and community roles are included in the syllabus, transform communities and provide stability.

HART is proud to be involved with educational projects in all our partner countries. A few months ago, our partner in Sudan, Benjamin Barnaba, speaking of an area deeply impacted by conflict, said: “Apart from HART in the Nuba Mountains there is no other indigenous or international or UN agency able to provide any educational or scholastic material or anything to do with education. Yours is the only project that exists on the ground and everyone relies on it.”


[i] Naveed Hussain. Global Coalition to Protect Education from attack. Why terrorists attack education. 22 February 2016

[ii] Samantha de Silva.  Role of Education in the prevention of violent extremism. joint World Bank-UN flagship report “Can Development Interventions Help Prevent Conflict and Violence?”

[iii] Ibid.


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